Ladies First

Bringing online stories alive to help empower and inspire women in Mumbai.

BY AYUSHI SHAH

W

hile violence and discrimination against women across the world have been well documented, in India, there is a growing women’s movement to address these issues.

Thousands of organisations in the public and private domain are working tirelessly to improve the lives of women in the country.

Some of their stories told by Our Better World (OBW) – the Singapore International Foundation’s digital storytelling initiative – have made significant impact. OBW’s online community has been inspired to take action. Awareness increased, volunteer sign-ups hit more than a thousand for one organisation, while another – which helps marginalised women earn a living – found its wares sold out.

Riding on this impact, OBW brought its online community face to face for honest and empowering conversations to garner more support to address the issues highlighted in its videos. The community event held in Mumbai last November, and entitled Women in India: Stories of Inspiring Women and Those Who Inspire Them, put the spotlight on the changemakers of its stories. The event saw the stories come alive as the community met the determined protagonists and left inspired to take action.

“Can we help educate girls and make them the fulcrum to make the entire state of Bihar blind-free? That was the idea, which was easier said than done.”

Mritunjay Tiwari, founder of Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital

The Mumbai event was the third in a series of community events put together by OBW under a unifying theme, after the success of the previous two. The first, in Singapore last March, centred around the theme of food and hunger, while the second in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur last July focused on refugees.

OBW’s stories in India focused on three organisations – Cactus Foundation, whose mission is to eradicate child sex abuse in India; HelpUsGreen, which employs marginalised Dalit women to recycle unwanted temple flowers into eco-friendly products; and Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital, which works to empower young girls to become optometrists to challenge patriarchal practices in Bihar.

Some of the issues raised during the Mumbai event included the prevailing patriarchy in Bihar amid the urgent need to help millions of visually impaired people; the complex problem of the Dalits trapped in perpetual poverty and despair in a society that forces them to make their meagre living through manual scavenging; and the insidious harm that keeping silent about sexual abuse creates in families and communities. Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges these problems present, the founders of the three organisations were determined to make a difference.

Ankit Agarwal described an experience that made him set up HelpUsGreen. “Imagine your washroom does not have a flush and you need to pick up your excreta and put it in the dustbin every day. How many of you would want to do that? If I told you this is what you were meant to do, you were born to do this, and if you don’t do this, you don’t get food?

“Donʼt get comfortable where you are, and do your bit to make this world a better place.”

Nusrat Khan Pahade, founder of Cactus Foundation

This is manual scavenging. “When I was 16, I found out about it when I came across this population that was large, suffering and invisible. Years later, I visited this family in Bangalore where the maid sat with them at the dining table and they ate together. I was shocked. I’ve never seen this happen, and that was when I decided to start searching for avenues to work for the community. Years later, we started HelpUsGreen.”

SOMETIMES IT TAKES AS LITTLE AS A PLASTIC STOOL TO MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE IN SOMEONE’S LIFE. ALL THAT WE NEED TO DO IS GIVE IT A LITTLE THOUGHT.

Mritunjay Tiwari similarly questioned the state of affairs before he founded Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital. “Can we help educate girls and make them the fulcrum to make the entire state of Bihar blind-free? That was the idea, which was easier said than done. But I firmly believed that if we get our ‘why’ correct, we will never deviate or lose focus. Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital gave me the ‘why’.”

Meanwhile, Nusrat Khan Pahade, founder of Cactus Foundation, talked about laying the building blocks for a better future for all.

“We don’t have an end goal. All we know is that with all the challenges we have, we will be continuing our work. We’re not sure that all of us will be able to see what we want to see happen in our lifetime, but the mission is that the next generation gathers the courage and becomes brave enough to put an end to this violence.”

Many of the attendees were deeply inspired. Prathyusha Jayaprakash described the event as open and friendly. “It made people like me who are attending such an event for the first time very welcome,” she added.

“Such gatherings will help the OBW community in India bond better, learn and get inspired from each other,” said Surushi Sharma.

Saroj Shirke was equally moved. “I’m looking forward to interacting with all and helping my society. I feel proud to see my people growing because of your Foundation. You are angels.”

The session ended with each of the founders suggesting that the audience commit to one action to help empower more women, eradicate curable blindness or prevent child sexual abuse.

“Get out of your comfort zone, don’t get comfortable where you are, and do your bit to make this world a better place,” Nusrat suggested.

Mritunjay added: “Each one of us can make a difference. It doesn’t matter where we live, how we live, what is our age and what is our financial status. It’s the way you approach things. And so everyone has the capacity to contribute. But please make a start.”

“Get out of your comfort zone donʼt get comfortable where you are,
and do your bit to make this world a better place. ”

Nusrat Khan Pahade, founder of Cactus Foundation

Ankit noted that everyday dignities, such as being offered a stool to sit on, are valued by the Dalit women, who typically face routine discrimination. Ankit, therefore, urged the audience to treat their employees with respect and kindness. “Have a meal with your maid or someone else who works for you,” he implored.

Clearly the message that echoed was to make a start. Sometimes, it takes as little as a plastic stool to make a big difference in someone’s life. All that we need to do is give it a little thought.

This OBW event encouraged participants to take steps to empower more women, eradicate curable blindness and prevent child sexual abuse.

STARTING A MOVEMENT
The 13th-century poet and scholar Rumi once said: “The wound is where the light enters” In that same vein, Nusrat Khan Pahade, Founder of Cactus Foundation, turned her childhood trauma of assault into a powerful movement to tackle child sexual abuse in India.

After an injury left her bedridden for months, Nusrat found herself increasingly protective of her young daughter, and realised that she was trying to protect her daughter from the traumatic sexual abuse she experienced during her own childhood.

Determined to make this world safer, not only for her daughter but for kids and adults everywhere, Nusrat was galvanised to take action by setting up Cactus Foundation.

Speaking up on assault is challenging, as taboos surround the issue and child abuse accusations are often trivialised or not taken seriously, said Nursrat. “Children need to be heard. We have to take them seriously. They have rights.” There is grit and bravery in Nusrat's voice. She knows that assault can leave scars that stay for a lifetime and that staying quiet is not an option.

“We get confessions [of sexual abuse] not just from kids but from parents and adults. We need 'safe zones' where people who care can empathise with what each one of us is going through.”

ENTREPRENEURSHIP FOR GOOD
Kanpur-based startup HelpUsGreen has gotten increasingly popular thanks to its wonderful "flowercycling" initiative. While most perceived it as an environmentally friendly organisation, it soon discovered how it could empower the women of Kanpur.

Co-founder Ankit Agarwal shared the social enterpriseʼs Zittersoeet journey with the Dalit women it works with. Often considered “untouchable,” these marginalised women are forced to pick up low- paying jobs that have no takers – cleaning toilets that have no drainage system or mopping blood in hospitals. It is these "invisible" women who find dignity at HelpUsGreen with higher wages, insurance and other benefits.

Ankit openly shared the problems faced at HelpUsGreen, such as the need for people and government to acknowledge the existence of manual scavenging at its current scale and the lack of proper drainage. While the long-term outlook of the organisation is uncertain, he has a target in mind and is determined to change at least 5,000 lives.

DOUBLING THE IMPACT
While Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital is focused on nipping curable blindness by 2022 in Bihar, one Indiaʼs poorest states, its efforts also correspondingly further women empowerment and gender equality by leveraging on football, a sport commonly perceived as a boys-only game.

Football to Eyeball is a programme where parents allow their daughters to play football and agree not to marry them off before they're 21. In return, these girls are educated and trained as optometrists, raising a generation of role models who can inspire the next generation of girls and continue to challenge the patriarchal norms in Bihar.




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